|Eros and the Golden Fleece|
|Eros and the Trojan War|
|Eros and Psyche|
|Images of Eros|
We often think of Eros as a cherub-like infant but he is usually depicted in ancient artwork as a young man. He was the forth Immortal to come into existence. The first Immortal was Chaos ... he was followed by Eros, Gaia [Earth] and Tartaros [the Pit]. The age of Eros cannot be estimated but he existed eons before the Olympian Immortals came to power. Eros is the most handsome of the Immortals and can break the will of the wisest god or the strongest mortal when they are scratched by one of his arrows.
In the poem Theogony by Hesiod, it's stated emphatically that 'Eros is love' ... there was no mention of a negative aspect to his influence. Theogony was written circa 750 BCE ... it wasn't until hundreds of years later that poets and philosophers imposed a negative possibility to Eros's arrows. Perhaps it was a desire to 'balance' irresistible love with distaste ... regardless of the reason, it became acceptable to suggest that Eros used lead arrows to cause revulsion.
Aphrodite is the goddess of love ... in poems such as the Argonautika she is referred to as the mother of Eros ... he is said to be her son. We can attribute such statements to 'poetic license' because Eros is older than Aphrodite by an incalculable number of years. Before the seas flowed and before the mountains rose, Eros existed as primal, unconditional love.
The goddess Hera was instrumental in getting Eros involved in one of the defining events in Greek history ... the Quest for the Golden Fleece. Without Eros's influence, the Golden Fleece might never have been taken from Kolchis and returned to its rightful home in Greece.
Hera was very fond of a young prince named Jason. She was determined to help him claim the throne of Iolkos, and the only way he could do that was to go to the distant land of Kolchis and retrieve the Golden Fleece. Hera conceived a convoluted plan to insure Jason's success. The king of Kolchis was a very powerful man with a direct linage to the god Helios [Sun] ... his name was Aietes, and he had an unmarried daughter named Medeia. Hera believed that if Princess Medeia was smitten with true love for Jason, she would betray her father and help Jason take the Golden Fleece.
Hera wanted Aphrodite to persuade Eros to shoot Princes Medeia with an arrow of irresistible love. The problem was that Hera and Aphrodite were not on the best of terms ... nevertheless, Hera humbled herself and asked Aphrodite for help. Aphrodite recognized Hera's sincerity and agreed to help but suggested that Eros would probably be more inclined to obey Hera if she asked him personally. Hera insisted that Aphrodite be the intermediary. It's interesting that Hera did not want to speak to Eros ... perhaps she thought that Eros might think she was trying to deceive him ... after all, Hera had a reputation for selfish manipulation and brutal revenge.
Aphrodite found Eros on the folds of Mount Olympos playing dice with the cup-bearer of the Immortals, Ganymedes. Ganymedes was one of the three sons Tros who was, in turn, the great-grandson of Zeus and the great-grandfather of the last king of Troy, Priam. Ganymedes had been abducted by Zeus and taken to Mount Olympos where he was made the cup-bearer of the Immortals and thus became immortal himself.
Eros playing dice
Aphrodite interrupted the dice game and accused Eros of cheating Ganymedes, who she called 'an innocent child.' Eros was unrepentant so Aphrodite pressed on with her mission. She asked Eros to strike Medeia with one of his arrows of love. She promised him a golden ball if he would do her bidding. She told him that when the ball was thrown into the air, it would flair like a meteor ... he was delighted. His childish acceptance of the ball demonstrates his innocent playfulness and impish nature.
Eros proceeded to Kolchis at the eastern edge of the Euxine [Black Sea] and waited for the right moment to shoot the unsuspecting princess with his arrow of irresistible love. The goddess Hera shrouded Jason in a mist as he walked from the sea to the king's palace but once he was standing in front of the king's throne, the mist dissolved. Princess Medeia was present when Jason made his dramatic entrance ... Eros took aim and pierced her heart. Medeia swooned and turned pale ... she was in love and could not resist the feeling. The young princess readily betrayed her father and helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece. Eros retreated back to Mount Olympos and left Hera to sort out the remaining threads of the tapestry ... a web of betrayal and murder.
The Trojan War was one generation after the Quest for the Golden Fleece and again Eros was there at the very beginning. The Quest for the Golden Fleece began with love and ended with betrayal and murder. The Trojan War also began with love and ended with unspeakable carnage ... actually, the carnage was 'speakable' ... it just had to be put in the form of a poem to make it palpable.
The goddess Eris is the master of Strife and Discord. She was invited to the wedding of the Nereid Thetis and a mortal man named Peleus. Eris presented the party-goers with an enigmatic gift in the form of a golden apple with the inscription, 'For the most beautiful one.' The three most beautiful goddesses in attendance thought the apple was for them ... Hera, Athene and Aphrodite.
The intended conflict arose and quickly got out of hand. To settle the matter and allow Thetis and Peleus to have a pleasant wedding, Zeus instructed Hermes to escort the feuding goddesses to Mount Ida near Troy where a young prince named Alexandros [Paris] could decide which goddess deserved the golden apple. Hera was powerful and could give Alexandros fame and riches. Athene was skillful and wise, she could make Alexandros the most respected craftsman in the world. Aphrodite offered Alexandros the most extraordinary woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. Alexandros chose Aphrodite.
In the above image, Eros can be seen standing on a column behind the three goddesses with Hermes and Alexandros off to the left side. The instigator Eris admires her handiwork in the upper-left.
To complete Aphrodite's promise, Alexandros traveled to Sparta where the unsuspecting Helen received him as a guest for her absent husband. Eros struck Helen with an arrow of irresistible love and the Trojan War began. The infatuated couple fled Sparta with Helen's dowry and went to Troy. Menelaos, Helen's husband, helped to assemble an army and attacked Troy. Ten years later, nearly all Trojan men were dead and the women were enslaved.
Psyche is the personification of the Soul ... her name literally means Breath but has come to mean Breath of Life, i.e. the soul.
The love affair between Eros and Psyche is a story that has been lost to us in its original form. The Greek text was apparently in existence circa 155 CE when Lucius Apuleius rewrote the story into Latin as part of The Golden Ass. The names and personifications of the Greek Immortals were revamped to suit the Roman sensibilities thus changing the basis of the entire story.
In the Roman version of this story, Aphrodite was replaced by Venus and, just as in the Roman epic the Aeneid, the Roman goddess of love is portrayed as a vain and petty manipulator. Aphrodite was no angle but she was never petty or cruel. Likewise, Eros was mischievous and sometimes childish but the Roman characterization of Cupid is damnable ... not the laughable type of damnable, literally damnable.
The following synopsis is from The Golden Ass. I have kept the Roman names as a reminder that the gods and goddesses in the story are not Greek, but more like Roman parodies of the Greek Immortals.
This tale was told by an old woman to amuse and distract a captive maiden ...
There was a family in an undisclosed place with three daughters. The two eldest girls were praised for their beauty and were married as soon as they came of age. The youngest girl was named Psyche ... she was so radiantly beautiful that no man, prince or commoner, would approach her. The local people began to say that she was divine ... a virginal Venus. Word spread quickly through the islands and provinces ... pilgrimages to see the new goddess became common. It wasn't long before Psyche's notoriety caught the attention of Venus, goddess of love. People who would have normally gone to one of the shrines of Venus were now going to see Psyche instead.
Venus summoned her son Cupid so that he could become the instrument Psyche's punishment because it was necessary to avenge the insult that Psyche's beauty represented. Venus instructed Cupid to shoot Psyche with one of his arrows so that she would be hopelessly in love with a truly wretched individual ... one of the lowest specimens of humanity.
Even without the hostility of Venus, Psyche's life was misery. She was praised and worshiped by everyone but all eligible men feared her because of her exceptional beauty. Her parents were despondent and sought an oracle for guidance. An oracle of Apollo told them to dress their daughter for marriage and abandon her on a lofty mountain-rock so that she could meet her barbaric, reptilian husband. The only person who welcomed the oracle was Psyche ... her cursed beauty had taken its toll on her sanity.
She was taken to the prescribed rock and before too long, the West Wind carried her into a valley where she enjoyed the first tranquil sleep she had had in a long time. When she awoke she found a splendid dwelling that she assumed belonged to a god. A disembodied voice informed her that the dwelling was hers and that she would lack nothing. After being fed and entertained by unseen servants, Psyche retired to her bed but soon found that she was not alone. She could not see who was with her in the darkness but he had intercourse with her and then departed before sunrise.
The nightly visits from her unseen lover were welcomed and her days were filled with pleasant activities ... even so, she wanted to see her sisters and parents to assure them that she was not dead but instead very comfortable. Her lover warned her not to try to discover his identity or allow her sisters to meddle in her affairs but he knew that she would disobey and eventually suffer the consequences.
When Psyche's sisters went looking for her, the West Wind carried them to her secluded new home. After a tearful reunion, the sisters began to inquire as to Psyche's benefactor and husband. Psyche lied and said that her husband was young and rich ... the sisters were suitably impressed, especially when Psyche gave them precious gems as parting gifts. The West Wind returned the sisters to the mountain top and they began to discuss Psyche. Their hearts were full of bitterness and envy ... they decided not tell to their parents about their meeting with Psyche.
Psyche's mysterious lover again warned her not to be too bold about trying to learn his identity and to keep her sisters at a distance. He informed her that she was pregnant and that the child would be a god if she obeyed him but if she betrayed him, the child would be a mortal. Psyche said that she understood the situation but begged to be allowed to see her sisters again ... she promised to be discreet. Her lover reluctantly agreed to allow her to meet with her sisters one last time.
When the West Wind again brought the sisters to Psyche's home, they were bold and demanding. They caught Psyche off-guard when they pressed her for details about her husband ... she forgot the lies she had previously told and the sisters demanded the truth. Psyche admitted that she had never seen her husband and had no idea who he was. The sisters told her to kill him in the night so that she could be free to return to her home and family where she could find a proper husband.
That evening, after her husband fell asleep, Psyche went through his belongings looking for a weapon ... one of his arrow-points pricked her finger. Before the love potion from the arrow could take effect, she drew out a razor and prepared to kill him. Suddenly, she felt an irresistible urge to look at him before she completed the gruesome task ... she held a lamp over his sleeping body and was shocked to see the divinely handsome Cupid asleep in her bed. She dropped the razor and spilled the scalding oil from the lamp on his shoulder, burning him severely. Cupid awoke in pain and correctly surmised the situation. As he tried to fly away, Psyche clung to his leg until she finally fell to the ground. Cupid berated her and left her in tears on a riverbank.
Psyche threw herself in the river but the god of the river would not let her drown. The god Pan found Psyche and advised her pray to Cupid and promise to serve him faithfully. Feeling somewhat better, Psyche made her way to the home of one of her sisters. She told her sister that her husband was Cupid and she had driven him away with her rash behavior. Instead of sympathy, her sister was filled with unrealistic, selfish expectations ... she went to the rock on the mountain and assuming Cupid would hear her, proclaimed that she would be a better wife than Psyche ... thinking that the West Wind would catch her, she jumped from the cliff and was torn to pieces on the jagged rocks.
Meanwhile, Cupid went to Venus's home seeking treatment for his burns. Venus was furious when she found out that he had disobeyed her and taken Psyche as his lover ... she had clearly instructed him to give Psyche to a despicable man to humiliate and punish her for being so beautiful. She threatened to strip Cupid of his divine powers and denounce him as her son. Other goddesses tried to comfort Venus but she would not forgive or forget the insults heaped upon her by her son's disobedience and Psyche's beauty.
As Venus desperately searched for Psyche, the poor girl took refuge at a temple of Ceres, goddess of the harvest, but Ceres would not let her stay. Psyche had the same experience at a temple of Juno, queen of the gods, so she bravely decided to look for Venus and ask for mercy. Unaware of Psyche's plan, Venus enlisted the help of Mercury, messenger of the gods, who let everyone know that Venus would pay a reward for information about Psyche's whereabouts.
Before she could be captured, Psyche voluntarily went to the home of Venus. The goddess had her servants whip and beat Psyche. When the battered girl was brought before Venus again, the goddess pounced on her, ripping her cloths and bashing her head on the floor. She then threw a variety of seeds on the floor and commanded Psyche to sort them out. Psyche realized the impossibility of the task so she sat on the floor and waited for Venus to return and kill her. Some divinely inspired ants took mercy on Psyche and sorted out the seeds with no trouble. When Venus returned, she was surprised to see the seeds sorted ... she then commanded Psyche to go to a nearby pasture and bring back some wool from the golden sheep that grazed there.
Psyche decided to kill herself rather than submit to more torment but the spirit of a nearby river convinced her to endure. The spirit told her to hide in the brambles and get the wool that was pulled off the sheep by the briars and take it to Venus.
When she returned the golden wool to Venus, the poor girl was assigned another task. This time Venus commanded Psyche to go to a nearby mountaintop and bring back water from the river Styx. Every time Venus gave Psyche a task, the disheartened girl would go forth not to do the deed but to kill herself ... each time, a divine influence would dissuade her from suicide and help her complete the chore. When Psyche went to the mountaintop for the water of Styx, she was helped by an eagle sent by Jupiter, king of the gods ... the task was completed and Psyche didn't have to kill herself.
As one final and seemingly fatal task, Venus commanded Psyche to go to the Underworld and bring back a box of "beauty" from Proserpina, the bride of Pluto, lord of the dead. Psyche of course went to a nearby tower to jump to her death. The divinely inspired tower persuaded Psyche to do as Venus commanded. The tower went on to give her elaborate instructions as to how to overcome the numerous obstacles she was sure to encounter. Psyche crossed the river of death, ignored a drowning man, walked past some needy old women and bribed the hell hound ... she stood before Proserpina and was given a box of "beauty." The magical tower had sternly warned Psyche not to look in the box ... she looked, and was overcome by a death-like sleep.
Cupid had recovered from his injury just in time to rescue Psyche. He placed the sleeping spell back in the box and instructed Psyche to deliver it to his mother Venus. Cupid proceeded to Jupiter and asked for mercy for his beloved Psyche. Jupiter instructed Venus to forgive Psyche and Cupid for their youthful indiscretions ... he gave Psyche nectar and made her immortal.
Το Τéλος [The End]
Some modern adaptations of this story simply substitute the names of the Greek gods and goddesses for the Roman names ... this seems presumptuous because the actions of the Roman deities are barbaric compared to what we know of the Greek Immortals. That being said, it might be interesting to speculate as to the content of the original Greek story of Eros and Psyche, i.e. the lost story from which the Roman version was taken.
It seems likely that in the Greek version, the trials Psyche was forced to endure would have been more like an initiation ritual than the cruel and sadistic punishments imposed by Venus. The repeated attempts by Psyche to kill herself seem unlike any other Greek story. We sometimes see movies and TV shows that claim to be "Based on true events" ... those familiar with the "true events" being portrayed usually find the stories utterly false or at best, not quite true. The same might be said about the Roman version of love affair between Cupid and Psyche, the affair actually happened but the details are either false or over dramatized.
The 1566 CE translation of the Golden Asse from The Project Gutenberg is presented here ... the language is archaic but it is interesting nonetheless.
Eros was a very popular theme for ancient artists. His likeness can be found on ceremonial as well as household items. I have collected these images from various museums and you may see them with the following link ... Images of Eros.
[Loeb Classical Library vol. 503, Hesiod II]